Poverty is a political choice, says UN Special Rapporteur

A pile of coins.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights recently visited the UK to review the UK’s action in this area.  His visit included 6 days spent in Scotland.  His initial statement on his visit was very hard-hitting in it’s condemnation of the UK Government for not listening to those experiencing poverty, and for the Government’s austerity measures that have flung many more people into poverty.

For example, he said:

‘We are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm. In its place, a digital welfare state is emerging. The impact on the human rights of the most vulnerable in the UK will be immense.’

‘The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities.’

And about Scotland specifically he said:

‘Scotland, despite having the lowest poverty rates in the United Kingdom, has the lowest life expectancy and the highest suicide rate in Great Britain. I met with children in Glasgow’s North East, where, according to one local councillor, 48% of people are out of work, life expectancy is six years lower than the national average, about half of families are single-parent households, and about a third of households lack an internet connection.

However, Scotland has recently put in place schemes for addressing poverty, including its Fairer Scotland Action Plan and Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan. It has also used newly devolved powers to establish a promising social security system guided by the principles of dignity and social security as a human right, and co-designed on the basis of evidence. The system eschews sanctions entirely and, in contrast to Universal Credit, is decidedly not digital by default. Rather, the stated goal it to make benefits equally accessible however people want to access them.

It is too soon to say if these ambitious steps—and Scotland’s new powers of taxation—will make a difference for poverty, health outcomes, and life expectancy in Scotland. However, it is clear to me that there is still a real accountability gap which should be addressed. The absence of a legal remedy or a more robust reference to international standards in the Social Security (Scotland) Act is significant and should be addressed. I will be following closely the forthcoming recommendations from the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights.

Civil society groups also raised concerns about a general lack of awareness of local welfare funds for people in crisis and the considerable variation in how local authorities process applications for these emergency grants; in Glasgow only 3% of local welfare fund applications were decided in a day, whereas other councils managed to decide these claims within a day 99% of the time.’

Philip Alston concluded that:

‘The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice.’

You can read the Special Rapporteur’s statement here.


HRCS members are invited to a roundtable to discuss follow-up to this report 10.30-12.30 on 12th March in Edinburgh.  You can find details of this meeting here.



Image credit: Thomas’s pics, Flickr 

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